RORY, my niece, has a maturity, independence and accent stamping her as a child born of Filipino parents and raised in Sydney.
This blend of cultures is best shown when Rory is in a mood for anchovies.
What’s “bolinao” to her mother and “dilis” to her father is the “little fishes” for Rory, who sips from a glass of cold, creamy milk to soften the bite of every spoonful of the sweet-and-spicy anchovies only Leny, our long-time yaya, can cook.
I wonder how the milk from Sydney cows—unforgettable, crow our sons—pairs with bolinao from Bantayan. Yet, I’m happy that fish so tiny, it’s hard to tell the tail from the head, can make Rory’s Pinoy heritage poke out from under all that Aussieness.
Growing up with my father, my sister and I know fish very well. My father was born and raised in Camiguin; his coastal childhood pervaded our home, from his stories to our meals.
“Ginamos (fermented fish)” was the star of our dining table, from breakfast till dinner. There is no other soul mate for boiled unripe bananas, perfect after siesta. When we ran out of ginamos, bolinao was acceptable as No. 2.
Even when we later had to reduce the amount of salt in our diet, bolinao and other small fish remain in our weekly market list. Yaya never tires of recalling how during the 1970s, my father’s budget of P200 was enough for our week’s provision.
She could buy pork and crabs because small fish composed the bulk of her purchases. Fish then was not sold by the kilo but by “tapok (cluster)”. It cost about P15 a tapok, permitting the budget-conscious to buy more for the money.
Even now, “tamarong,” “bodboron (scad),” “tulingan (mackerel tuna),” and “tamban/tuloy (sardines)” hover around P100-150 per kilo. In Cebu, blessed by fresh and varied fish catch, only the rich will not blink at the premium prices commanded by “tanguigue,” “mamsa,” “rompe de candado” and “pugapo”.
Only big fish make appearances in restaurants, feeding the bias that small fish is good only for “inun-unan” and other home-cooked meals.
Not tomorrow, though. On June 8, World Ocean’s Day, 20 top chefs will serve small fish in their restaurants around the world. Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Micky Fenix wrote last May 28 that the chefs support the global campaign to focus on the small fish as an affordable and sustainable food “high in nutrients and low in toxins”.
The non-government organization Oceana points out that overfishing threatens the Philippines, regarded as the “center of marine biodiversity”. Small fish is presently caught and processed to feed farmed fish like salmon, chickens and pigs.
For this long-time piscine lover, there is no contest between the farmed fish like cream dory gracing buffets and fast food establishments and the likes of bodboron and tulingan. Even with extenders, the former relies on presentation to make up for its fishy inadequacies.
Fried bodboron can be eaten, head, tail and all. Little waste. The homely inun-unan is made from throwing inside a clay pot whatever is the freshest catch of small fish from the roadside “talipapa,” “iba/camias” (safer than vinegar), garlic, ginger, and “siling espada”. Heat it every morning for a cheap, healthy meal.
And leave some fish for Rory and future generations to savor.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 7, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”